A Changing Mission
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A Changing Mission

Walking down Valencia Street in San Francisco’s Mission District, I swooned slightly amid a swirl of visual stimuli.

There were dozens of new eateries, from Breton bistros to gourmet chocolatiers; toy stores where everything was wooden and non-toxic; boutiques full of faux retro clocks and snarky greeting cards. I’m used to expensive cities, but $12 chocolate bars and $20 brunch entrées were still kind of disorienting in a district I remember, from the 1990s, as poor.

Across the street, vestiges of that Mission remained. Sidewalk vendors hawked tables of used nightgowns and well-worn plastic toys in front of a taqueria with a crumbling sign and fluorescent lighting, where lunch cost $4.

As my husband Oggi and I admired the murals of Clarion Alley — a narrow, historic lane celebrated for its public art — several unfriendly-looking men eyed us. One of them edged a bit too close and muttered something; with a surge of adrenaline, we quickened our pace to emerge into the gentrified safety of Valencia.

This tension — between wealthy, tech-economy newcomers and struggling longtime residents — is the defining narrative of contemporary San Francisco. And the Mission, a formerly Latino immigrant district, is at the core of this narrative, an urban metaphor for the vertiginous upscaling of an erstwhile bohemia. Sensationalized in stories of Google buses and million-dollar evictions to make room for luxury condos, the Mission today is indisputably richer, yet no less quirky.

Quirkiness — the archly ironic kind immortalized in “Portlandia” — is the unofficial religion of San Francisco. The Mission’s muraled, multi-ethnic heritage long ago spawned its own (counter) culture, expressed in numerous parades and street festivals throughout the year. Many of these involve drag, non-heteronormative values (a term you hear a lot) and occasionally sacrilege — like the annual Eastertime Hunky Jesus Contest held by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a satirical organization that raises awareness and money for LGBT issues, in Dolores Park.

This beloved lawn is the heart of the Mission, both literally and spiritually. On weekends, as brunch lines form at nearby Tartine, locals sprawl across the park’s green hill, enjoying the city’s sunniest microclimate and spectacular views over the downtown skyline.

Dolores Park gets its name from Mission Dolores, the adjacent parish founded by Junípero Serra in the Colonial era — and the oldest surviving building in San Francisco. Now a historic landmark, Mission Dolores has withstood numerous earthquakes and generations of gold-seeking settlers and remains a draw for tourists and worshippers.

Catholicism may have founded the Mission, but Jewish life is on the rise there. Exhibit A: The Kitchen, one of several newish congregations catering to the post-synagogue, hipster parent set, which holds regular services, classes and events at the SF Friends School (originally a Levi Strauss factory). Or the Mission Minyan, another post-denominational group — you choose egalitarian or separate seating, and all the food is kosher — that meets in the colorfully frescoed Women’s Building, a non profit community arts center.

Exhibit B might be the phenomenally popular Wise Sons Deli, which was launched on the trendy 24th Street corridor a few years ago by a pair of transplanted, deli-starved Angelenos. The Wise Sons take on classic Jewish “comfort food” — a much-lauded matzo ball soup, pastrami, etc. — features the farm-fresh ingredients of California. (Another Wise Sons location recently opened in the Contemporary Jewish Museum in downtown San Francisco.)

My sister, who lives nearby, swears by Wise Sons chocolate babka and rye loaves, both made in-house. She’s also a fan of challah made by the Oakland kosher institution Grand Bakery, one of numerous kosher items sold at a new Mission outpost of the Gus’s Market gourmet chain.

And she bought her Jonathan Adler menorah and seder plate at Aldea, a Jewish-owned home furnishings store on Valencia. As for me, I’ve lost entire afternoons prowling the Valencia boutiques, as my long-suffering husband can attest. Nearly all the shops are locally owned, and filled with an urbane sensibility that makes for distinctive souvenirs (as I like to call overpriced dresses. Babka makes a terrific memento, but wouldn’t last the trip.)

A few blocks down Mission Street, as the neighborhood’s affluence visibly deteriorates, a handy BART station whisks you to downtown Market Street in under five minutes. That kind of convenience — plus all the sunshine — helps explain the Mission’s newfound appeal; so do pretty Victorian buildings and pocket parks where our daughter Zelda played happily.

Everyone I chatted with in those parks and cafés worked in technology, came from somewhere else, and appeared to be under 40. Perhaps it’s inevitable, given the economic forces shaping the Bay Area, that San Francisco is losing some of its vaunted diversity to the high-tech 21st century Gold Rush.

But change is to California what ice is to Antarctica: its defining essence and eternal allure. As single-source chocolatiers join taquerias, the muraled Mission landscape remains, for now, exhilarating.

Reminder: For an upcoming column, I’m still looking for advice and stories from kosher travelers. Write me at hilarasha@gmail.com.

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